July 23 12:09 PM

Fish and Wildlife Service adds life to Lake Huron

12,000 Lake Trout Released...

Having raised some of these fingerlings from the egg stage, Nick Grueneis, fishery biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Iron River, Wisconsin, National Fish Hatchery, pays careful attention to the water temperature and oxygen level in each tank as the M/V Spencer F. Baird heads to the location of the fish drop. Tailfeather Communications, LLC photo

August 01, 2007
By 4:00 p.m., things had settled down. Most folks were cooling off in the bridge of the M/V Spencer F. Baird, the unique, new, multi-million dollar fish planting vessel run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The crew became as carefree as one that had just delivered a boatload of bananas to a nearby island.

After four straight hours at the helm, the ship's captain, Mike Perry of Cheboygan, took a break, handing over the controls to First Mate Dave Bohn before moseying below deck for a snack. And "controls" is a more appropriate word than "wheel," for this ship has no traditional steering wheel. Once the Baird cleared the Alpena harbor, Perry had monitored its GPS system, making sure that the autopilot hit each waypoint. The manual override for steering the boat is just a stick handle with a knob on the end, like an old-time gearshift, set flat on the "dashboard" with its knob facing the pilot.

While Bohn maintained the boat's steady pace of about 11 mph, most of the work was done for the day. All that remained was the task of tying up once the boat returned to port. As the crew began to relax, so did their intensity. No more science for today.

"I love this," said Bohn, surveying the lake through the massive window of the bridge. "I thought I'd miss the tugs, but this is great."

Bohn, also of Cheboygan, spent 30 years in marine construction driving tugs and barges. Licensed both as a pilot and an engineer, he can fill in if needed in those important jobs in addition to helping the biologists on their mission.

Aaron Woldt, an FWS fishery biologist stationed in Alpena, was functioning as a program interpreter that day. On this, the sixth of nine scheduled trips into Lake Huron for 2007, he finally remembered to let Bohn know how hard the biologists had to lobby for the FWS to hire a second pilot. Apparently the prevailing thinking in the bean-counting division of the FWS was, "if we've got one pilot for the boat, why do we need two?"

Well, in case of emergencies, is one good reason. Another: to give the captain a break, especially on long runs, like those down to the Charity Islands.

"Even I get tired of being on the boat after 12 hours," said Perry.

Other end-of-the-day topics included favorite episodes of "The Simpsons," dinner plans, favorite nightspots in town and Woldt's lament that good Mexican restaurants just don't seem to endure in Alpena. Nick Grueneis, a fishery biologist stationed at the hatchery in Iron River, Wis., leaned back against a counter, hands in his pockets, and spoke with pride about his three German shorthaired pointers, how well they work for him in the field, the joy he derived from training them and how they actually helped train each other.

What a difference from a few hours earlier.

Then, even with the 88-degree heat and cloudless sky, Grueneis had visited the air-conditioned bridge but once. He stood in the stairwell, shifted uncomfortably for maybe half a minute, then went back onto the deck.

Woldt remarked, "He'll be back there all day. He won't miss a half-hour when he's supposed to check them."

The "them" Grueneis kept checking were the 120,000 lake trout fingerlings that the Baird was delivering to North Point Reef, about 22 miles from Alpena.

Woldt continued, "He's very protective, very parental. All hatchery people are. They raise these fish from the eggs up. They spend so much time raising these fish that they want them to be alive when they hit the water."

Though he's supposed to make an hourly check of the Baird's 10 tanks, each of which holds about 1100 gallons of water, Grueneis seemed to be continuously lifting tank lids, checking to see if the fish were stressed, then measuring each tank's water temperature and oxygen level.

Stressed fish will move toward the water's surface, then crowd into corners of the tank. Little chance of that happening on this day of negligible wave action and with tank water super-saturated with oxygen, which, according to Grueneis, "makes it easier for them to breath."

"Anything above eight parts per million of oxygen is good," he said. One tank measured 15.63 ppm, enough saturation so that "if something goes wrong, we can buy a couple hours."

The vessel's engineer, Bob Bergstrol, also of Cheboygan, spent most of the time below deck, tending not only to the boat's mechanics but also to the heart of the fish tanks' success: the onboard oxygen concentrator system and water chiller system which, Bergstrol said, "is modeled after what they use on salt boats to keep their catch cold."

The system can chill 3,000 gallons of water from 65 to 45 degrees in 10 hours. About 45 minutes before the fish are delivered at the dock, each tank gets filled with about 100 gallons of water — enough to cushion the fall when the fish tumble from the delivery trucks through the translucent corrugated pipe and into the tanks. The water fills the tanks at 45-48 degrees, but it will warm up fast. That's why the tank filling needs to be coordinated with the arrival of the fish trucks.

While the boat is underway, the system produces enough water that, according to Bergstrol, "if we have trouble with the water in a tank we can exchange it. So the chiller has kind of a dual purpose."

So too, does the crew. When the Baird reached the drop point, a single blast of its horn told Grueneis and Bohn to open the tanks' dump valves one by one. Woldt shot a noisemaker gun to encourage gulls to keep their distance. Perry held the Baird steady, and Bergstrol kept an eye on the operation, just in case.

Half an hour later, Perry set the boat's course back to Thunder Bay. Having wound up the day's mission, the crew itself was ready to unwind. And Grueneis was ready to gab about "The Simpsons" and German shorthairs.

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